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Obama forms Alaska energy group

Jill Burke

Effective Tuesday, an 11-member group of high level federal employees is now tasked with managing the process by which oil and gas development in Alaska proceeds. David Hayes, the deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, will chair the newly formed Interagency Working Group and Coordination of Domestic Energy Development and Permitting in Alaska.

The group is "to coordinate the efforts of federal agencies responsible for overseeing the safe and responsible development of onshore and offshore energy resources and associated infrastructure in Alaska and to help reduce our dependence on foreign oil," according to an executive order signed Tuesday by President Barack Obama.

Working with Hayes will be representatives from the departments of Defense, Commerce, Agriculture, Energy, and Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of the Federal Coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects, Council on Environmental Quality, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of Management and Budget, and the National Security Staff.

Alaska's Senate delegation believes it's a good move. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the group "a positive step forward." Sen. Mark Begich called it "a step in the right direction." Meanwhile, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the president's efforts will lead to real reform of the federal permitting process.

The group is supposed to coordinate "engagement" with the state of Alaska and local communities, including tribal governments, and it is specifically directed to "ensure that the sharing and integrity of scientific and environmental information and cultural and traditional knowledge among agencies to support the permit evaluation process of onshore and offshore energy development projects in Alaska."

For Gov. Parnell, the overtures fall short. "I am concerned that the state of Alaska was not granted a seat in this working group, nor is our unique role and responsibilities with regard to permitting acknowledged," Parnell said. "Nevertheless, the state will participate to the fullest extent allowed."

As the group works to streamline the permitting process, it must also protect human health, the environment and indigenous populations, according to the president's order.

"That's really lipstick on a pig," responded Brendan Cummings, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, hurling back a phrase Obama lobbed at the McCain-Palin campaign during a speech in September 2008. "It's essentially a directive to federal agencies to start approving drilling in the Arctic."

Murkowski has said she plans to make sure the group closes "what has been an endless loop of approvals, appeals and delays -- delays caused by special interest groups opposed to improving our energy security and the jobs it would create."

Project opponents are not, however, losing their voice. They still have the ability to participate in public comment periods and go to court when they feel safety or environmental standards are not being met. But Cummings believes Obama's executive order gives the regulatory agencies the green light to cut corners as long as permits are getting approved and projects are moving forward.

"Unfortunately, the overriding message from this executive order is to speed up the process of approving drilling in the Arctic," he said.

"It is the Obama administration accepting the Shell-Murkowski-Begich frame that the reason drilling hasn't been approved is that it is due to some fault of the agencies. If agencies were actually following the law they probably couldn't be approving Shell's drilling plans -- or anyone else's -- in the Arctic," he said, referring to inadequate oil spill response capabilities for the Arctic Ocean.

Cummings also believes the new working group signals that the White House presumes drilling is the best move for the nation's energy future. Questions like whether fostering the fossil fuel industry in an age of climate change is even wise, or whether alternative energy methods should be pursued, appear to have gotten lost, he said.

"[The executive order] adopts Big Oil's rhetoric that we can drill our way to independence and we can do that by streamlining federal approval processes. It's the wrong answer to the wrong question," he said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com